More than 110 years have passed since the first powered aircraft soared to the skies. During that period, several designs, such as the Messerschmitt Bf 109, the Cessna 182, the Focke-Wulf Fw 190, Antonov An-2 / An-3 and the Concorde supersonic aircraft, were hailed for their foresight. But there are also those who failed to deliver but opened up ideas for forthcoming generations.
Airplanes do fall from the sky from time to time. This is an unavoidable aspect of flight. Sometimes it’s due to technical failure, pilot mistake, a stray missile, or a stray flock of birds. And occasionally planes crash out of the sky because they are poorly, terribly engineered.
That was the situation with the Christmas Bullet, a strutless biplane from aviation’s early days. Dr. William Christmas, who may or may have not been a doctor, conceived the plane. As an aeronautics designer, he wasn’t much of an expert either. Wings would work perfectly if they were permitted to flap like birds, Christmas believed. “As the single-seat plane flew faster, the wings would flex higher, up to 18 inches in any direction,” he envisioned in his thoughts. On contemporary airplanes, the wings are designed to bend quite a bit, but they also have a lot of internal support to keep them from breaking.
His Investors, a senator, and the Continental Aircraft Company were able to fund Christmas’ plans for an airplane in 1918. It would be able to travel to Germany and abduct Kaiser Wilhelm II, he said. To test his plane, Christmas was provided with an engine by the Army, but only for ground tests. He was also forced to get clearance before flying before the engine could be used. While private aircraft had only begun to gain traction in the U.S., the war had already ended, and the abdicated Kaiser was no longer an attractive abduction target.
Not everyone was convinced by Christmas’ proposal: Continental Aircraft engineer Vincent Burnelli stated that the wings were so heavy that they had to be winched into place, and that the tail assembly was far too tiny for the 2,100-pound Bullet. He eventually resigned from Continental due to his worries about the design’s safety.
The Christmas Bullet, powered by the Army’s Liberty 6 185-horsepower engine, flew for the first time over Long Island, New York, in December 1918. Although it didn’t reach the planned speed of 200 mph, the Bullet’s wings ripped apart from the body once it reached a height of 3,000 feet, and the aircraft crashed and resulted in the death of the test pilot, Cuthbert Mills. It would not be a surprise that the second and the VERY last flight also resulted in the death of another pilot.
Even though his plane was a complete failure (as were many early planes), Christmas continued to make amazing claims and less wonderful airplane designs. None were ever built after the Bullet, but Christmas is claimed to have been compensated handsomely for the rights to his ideas. In a letter to the Air Force after WWII, he stated that his ideas “made the aviation business what it is today.”
Messerschmitt Me 163 B Komet
Allied bombers were destined to be chewed up by Germany’s secret weapon, the Messerschmitt-163B, in the late stages of World War II. The Komet was a short, stubby rocket-powered aircraft. 400 miles per hour was its top speed. It could reach 40,000 feet in four minutes. It had to glide back to earth with the elegance of a falling rock since it had used up all its gasoline within eight minutes.
Two hundred miles per hour faster than The Allies’ finest fighters, and four times faster than heavy bombers, the Komet was the fastest aircraft of its kind in the world. German airspace was to be defended by two 30mm guns mounted on this tiny aircraft.
When the Komet was initially flown in 1941, it had several faults that needed to be worked out before it was ready for flight. The last manufacturing run began in 1943 and the aircraft was first deployed in 1944. So, we question, how significant are the 370 that have been built?
16 Allied aircraft were shot down by Komets. Allies’ biggest defense against them was their high accident rate. It required an experienced glider pilot and room for any mistake was non-existent. It was too quick for Komets to strike anything during bomber missions. When approaching bombers at decreased speed, pilots would come up underneath the plane.
An array of vertically directed rocket tubes that were activated visually was employed in a late variant of the Komet. As long as it flew below a bomber whose shadow would activate the missiles, it was good to go. This strategy resulted in the loss of one British Lancaster, although it was a gamble. Those rockets, according to one writer, were also activated by the clouds. Wie ein verrückter Meteorologe fliegten Kommeten über den Himmel in Deutschland, intercepting stratocumulus formations.
A rocket-powered fighter, the Komet is still the only one to have entered service. The Me 163 serves as a lesson in the limitations of emphasizing one feature of a combat plane at the price of all others while achieving speeds unequaled by any other aircraft of its day.
De Lackner, the DH-4 “Aerocycle”
The Aerocycle is one of those unusual ideas that military engineers often come up with for people navigation, but few are as bizarre as it was.
A flying platform developed by De Lackner, the DH-4 “Aerocycle” was the first of many one-man flying vehicles examined by the U.S. Army during the late 1950s and early 1960s. The DH-4 was developed by De Lackner as a private enterprise and first flew in January 1955. Shortly thereafter, the Army ordered 12 ‘off-the-shelf’ models. Initially called YHO-2, it was renamed HZ-1.
One pilot sat on a circular platform, directly above two contra-rotating 15-foot propellers, which were powered by a belt. Three-foot-tall handlebars on the main platform held the engine throttle and a few rudimentary gauges. Secured by safety belts, the pilot stood behind the pedestal and steered his ship by leaning in the direction of travel. An airbag positioned immediately beneath the propellers, together with four smaller bags attached to outrigger bars, was first utilized as the landing gear, but eventually, metal skids were employed.
You’d expect the bag to be able to carry a lot on Aerocycle and it could still balance and operate well. An additional 5-gallon gasoline tank and a lifting line linked to the shaft of the rotor were also to be carried by the craft.
The Aerocycle was tested for the first time in November 1954 and January 1955, and the results were quite promising. In the end, the U.S. Army was happy with the results of its test program. Trials in 1956 were less successful. The rotors churned up pebbles and dirt when they were just over the ground. They were not as easy to fly for inexperienced pilots as had been indicated in earlier tests. Untrained soldiers could not safely operate the craft, it was determined.